Saturday, April 6, 2013

Day Three...We Marched to the White House

2nd-grader Annie Peterson stands up for her teacher at the White House

Nancy Carlsson Paige
 Morna & Peggy, The Dynamic Duo
Barbara Mandeloni and I did NOT back down!


Me, CTU President Karen Lewis and Michelle Gunderson
Mark Naison and Sam Robertson
Nancy Letts and Karran Harper Royal

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Vocabulary 101

     1. Appropriate - may offend someone
Children with disabilities are guaranteed a Free Appropriate Public Education. Appropriateness is highly subjective and allows enough legal wiggle room for exclusion to exist.
     2. Structure - overused term in special education/ESOL classes to describe rigid adherence to programs forcing compliance.
     3. Cooperative and project-based learning - what the white and gifted kids get while the others are in structured classes
     4. Grit - new, magical ingredient that erases harm done by poverty and other outside factors
     5. Accountability - concept of blaming others instead of working with them
     6. Average - what most students/people used to be
     7. Failures - the new name for schools located in poor neighborhoods
     8. Charters - privately-owned schools that make up their own rules
     9. Confidentiality - mythical notion that student information is private
    10. Outcomes - new word used to replace "students" and "children" in feeble attempt to hide the casualties of test-driven reforms

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Be Your Own Child's Advocate

     I want to thank Jersey Jazzman for waking me up to some Speducational emergencies in New Jersey. His posts over the past two days have kept me up at night wondering how the world could have grown so cold to the cries of children.
     My response is the following list of things parents need to do to advocate for their children in school. These are just the basics.
If these babies could talk...Hey, they can!
     1. Buy recording devices and use them if you want to be treated respectfully during IEP meetings.
     2. Make all requests in writing, sent via email. Save electronic and hard copies of all correspondence with school employees.
     3. Ask for a copy of your child's student records and all copies of electronic correspondence in which your child's name/identifying information has been shared.
     4. Make all requests for or to opt your child out of testing in writing, sent via email.
     5. Insist your child spend as much time with his same-age peers as possible.
     6. Have face-to-face meetings with the other parents at your school, with no faculty members present. Bring food, offer to hostess..make it happen.
     7. Find out which adults spend the most time with your child during the course of the school day and how many of them are fully-certified teachers.
     8. If your child cannot clearly tell you what happens during his day, including the bus ride to/from school, find him a talkative buddy to give you the play-by-play.
     9. Trust only your insticts.
   10. Pray.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Wouldn't you like to know?

     Many parents of children with special needs have no IDEA what a valuable tool Emails can be in terms of advocating for their children. In her latest post, Out-of-the-Box Advocacy: Talk LD with Letters and Emails - NCLD Lyn Pollard says, "By far, the most effective advocacy tool for my two kids with disabilities is letter and Email writing."
     She describes the 4 Big E's of advocating for children via Emails:
  • Establish a direct communication channel outside of the confines of IEP and 504 meetings
  • Enhance accountability between the people who have been exposed to details about your child’s unique educational needs
  • Ease your ability to restate points made during IEP/504 meetings
    • For example, our dyslexic child is entitled to intensive, individualized dyslexia services on her school campus given by a qualified teacher using evidence-based, age-appropriate dyslexia curriculum according to Texas law. Based on my knowledge and research, I am able to clearly outline how and why in my emails.
  • Enable key decisions makers the opportunity to access resources, links, videos, books, etc. that you provide them information about.

     This Speducator believes the second Big E should be carved in stone and kept by parents' laptops for encouragement when exhaustion begins to set in after weeks, months or years of advocating for their children.
     Every message you send is a chance for someone to either listen or ignore you.
     When you are ignored, your plea is at least recorded electronically, along with the name of who chose not to respond. Those who respond with encouragement and understanding will likely do so via Emails, and hopefully, this will begin a positive chain of events that will benefit your child.
     There are some people, unfortunately, who will actively oppose your efforts by forming alliances and discussing your child in ways never meant to be shared in IEP meetings. The most common mistake made by technology dinosaurs is to document their own prejudices in Emails, accessible to parents who make a FERPA request.
     Young teachers who grew up with instant-messaging and Facebook wouldn't dare send Emails discussing other people's kids, but their bosses don't seem to know any better.
     What are they saying about your child?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Senator's office (lobby)

     Just a couple of years ago, we were running around five days a week like rats in a maze...always doing, doing and doing with no time to think. We were workers who delivered a product, scattering out information and hoping young minds snapped it up in time. No matter how many extra hours we worked, it would never, ever be enough.
     Yesterday, we hopped on the Metro and met with August Humphries at Sen. Mark Warner's office, or that's what was scheduled to happen. There was a mix-up with the timing, so we hung out in the lobby before being scooted through  an underground tunnel into the lunchroom. An empty table in front of the trash cans seemed to be waiting for our group. We advocated for our students amidst the clatter of tumbling trash.
     It was a Kodak moment.
     I'm not sure what significance the words we said and papers we delivered to Sen. Warner's aide have, if any, in the bigger picture of how society views the person who pulls the trigger. Those around us focused on the tools of destruction, while Marguerite and I talked about the unmet needs of the individuals holding the weapons.
    Marguerite spoke eloquently about the limited educational opportunities for children with mental illness, and I described the lack of housing available to young adults with serious mental health needs.
     I told Mr. Humphries of a meeting I attended last summer of the newly-formed group, Concerned Families of Fairfax County. While there, I heard older parents of adult children with mental illness plead with community leaders for affordable housing for their children.
     Taking out a copy of the notes from that meeting, I read the following:    
Families seeking housing with mental health supports for their loved ones are told their young adult must be homeless for over a year to even qualify for supported housing. This condemns our most fragile citizens to an isolated, terrifying existence as they wander the streets, fodder for predators and at increased risk of decompensation.
     Some of those scared young people are going to arm themselves for protection.
     Shouldn't we put at least as much effort into helping the individual as we do into controlling his means of destruction?

Sunday, February 3, 2013


     I'm going to write about one of my former students today. Not his label or disability status but the child he is underneath the many services prescribed as a means of molding him into society's idea of normal.
    My interpretation of individualized education means the academic environment is user-friendly for every student. Children in wheelchairs need ramps; children who cannot sit still for long stretches of time need wiggle room and breaks.
    Would it be such a huge crime to give all the children a break from their morning work, a time when they could play together for 10 or 15 minutes? Surely someone can dig up a scientifically-proven reason why this can be approved by the right committees so the teachers will be "allowed to" implement the once common practice.
     Introducing children to the possibility of an additional mini-recess could result in bursts of happiness and energy usually reserved for the days prior to summer vacation. Once the mass celebration is over and the students settle into a routine, the wigglers might not need quite as much medication or consequences.
     Now, here is a little story.
     There was a boy who absolutely loved books. He would run to the book shelves every morning, grab a title and savor its words, brilliant pictures and the smooth, creamy paper itself. He liked the feel of the pages so much that if left to his own devices, a beloved book could be reduced to shreds within minutes. His brown eyes would lock with mine, his lips curled slightly upward, and say, "Book, yes."
     When I met him, books were forbidden. He was not allowed to check them out of the library or touch them on the shelves. He yearned to hold one and press it to his chest in a bear hug, inhaling the scent of book.
     Five days a week, he was surrounded by other children, carrying around his beloved books, reading them, giggling at pictures, even forgetting them in the hallway. He was not allowed to pick up the ones discarded on the floor.
     He was different and very afraid; so was his teacher.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Land of Opportunity

     Special educators supposedly have the highest burnout rate of all teachers. Unfortunately, this  leaves the impression that teaching children with disabilities is such a challenge it drives us out of our classrooms to any other profession.
     The children are the reason we stay as long as we do. I can only speak for myself, but I was anything but a burnout by the time I taught my last class of students with autism. I was burning up with rage at the injustices I witnessed on a daily basis as children and adults tried to function in an environment saturated with fear.
     My students, who have a neurological disorder that is still so hard to define even the "experts" cannot agree on a specific set of behaviors, tried to learn in a setting where the most dangerous thing to do was "Be Yourself." From the time they walked into the school until they returned home in the afternoon, a constant threat of punishment hovered over them if they did not blend in with the children who were not on the autism spectrum.
     The teachers were afraid of what might happen if they couldn't raise the test scores of children with disabilities and those from homes where English was not the primary language spoken. That's the politically correct way of saying it. There was a list being passed around with the names, test scores and "specific needs" of these children:  the At-Risk List.
     For my students, this didn't mean intense instruction in reading, math or whatever test they had trouble with the year before. That's because no one except me and their parents seemed to believe they could learn the material and pass the tests.
     Both administrators expected me to recommend alternate forms of testing, the kind that allow children multiple attempts to get the right answer. Because these tests are given constantly, throughout the year, there is no secure testing environment. They are so time-consuming little time is left to work on IEP goals, the very things that make special education special in the first place.
     Basically, the alternative tests require children to fill out worksheets for the second half of the school year. Someone from the district shows up every couple of months to make sure you are putting all the little stickers in the right places.
     No one ever checks to see if the students actually learn anything.
     It's all about appearances. If the massive binders are filled with papers that look good, your students get a "pass" for the year. The principal looks good, the school looks keeps on going up the chain of command until everyone gets a big happy face on their yearly report card.
     Evidently, someone in Richmond realized something didn't add up a few years ago when students taking these alternate forms of assessment were suddenly passing at alarming rates. Unfortunately, they decided to slowly "phase out" the test instead of scrapping it until a better one turned up. This allowed shady administrators and desperate classroom teachers to keep pressuring special educators into convincing parents their children should spend January through May filling out worksheets. Mine were even foolish enough to put their demands in writing.
     My first year as a special educator was spent in a mobile unit, or trailer, and the adjoining units were occupied by classrooms for academically gifted children. They hardly ever had to do worksheets and instead collaborated on projects, working together in little groups and then giving presentations to the other classes.
     Someone unfamiliar with public education, dropping by for a tour, would have seen this:
     A select group of children being allowed to build social skills while solving problems in groups. This required them to move around, chat, select their own resources and enjoy freedoms denied their less "gifted" peers.
     A larger group of children  receiving lecture-style instruction in a setting so controlled that any  movement from their desk required teacher approval. These "average" learners spent most of their time seated at desks, listening to the teacher and then working individually to prove they were paying attention. They were given very little freedom to make decisions on their own.
Another large group, composed mostly of children with darker skin tones, received instruction separately, in special classrooms. Immediately after instruction, they completed worksheets, which were collected and placed in binders for alternate assessments.
     That visitor, unschooled in the various excuses we come up with for separating children based upon their skin color, accent and ability to fit in, might think we are rewarding the "gifted" children with a fun, engaging learning environment while punishing the others with strict rules and tedious, boring instruction.
     But that sort of thing doesn't happen in the land of opportunity, does it?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Open house at the Department of Education

     Part II of my Martin Luther King day post is in the works, but first, here is a recap of my adventures yesterday at the Department of Education's open house. It was one of many events leading up to the inauguration, and I received the invite via email. Of course, I accepted. I take full advantage of any opportunity to further my quest for knowledge about public education and enjoy getting all dressed up and heading into D.C. to mingle with the people up there who are running the show.
     During my Metro ride, I read an editorial in The Examiner that got my blood boiling. It was declaring Head Start to be a failure and all the money invested in it a big waste. Their solution was to instead devote time/money on keeping families together.
     Yeah, good luck with that one. Is Dr. Phil or Pat Robertson going to head up this divorce-prevention task force?
     Wikipedia describes Head Start as a program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. The program's services and resources are designed to foster stable family relationships, enhance children’s physical and emotional well-being, and establish an environment to develop strong cognitive skills.
     Reading that gave me a flashback to last year at this time when I was beginning my master's thesis on the over-identification of minority children for special education services. As I started my research, I had high hopes of discovering not only the source of a problem that has plagued special education since its inception but also coming up with a solution.
     Months later, I concluded that the answers to solving the problem had been identified decades before, many of which are contained in Wikipedia's description of Head Start. Services are out there to give needy families many of the things needed to prevent their children from falling behind their wealthier (whiter) peers.
     The problem is one of communication. For various reasons, low-income families are not aware of or do not know how to access available programs for prenatal care and early intervention for their infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
     This really upset the journalist inside me. It didn't exactly thrill the special educator who has seen children from needy homes being referred to local screening committees (That's where the possibility of special education services for a student is first discussed.) after just a few months of kindergarten.
     Hang in gets better.
     After listening to the Secretary of Education and other senior staff members at the Dept. of Ed. give brief speeches, I decided to attend a session led by Steven Hicks of the Office of Early Learning. He seemed like a nice enough guy, although I recognized that familiar look on his face when I opened my mouth to introduce myself.
     Others who spoke before me included someone from PBS, a principal from Atlanta and a teacher from the D.C. public schools. For some reason, my brief intro about being a misfit special educator looking for answers about what is happening in public schools seemed to put him on edge. I immediately realized that I need to come up with something more boring if I expect to ever find out anything useful.
     One topic that put my Speducator sensors on alert was the idea that states are being asked to implement kindergarten entry assessments. One of the educators in the room asked how that could be possible when the cutoff for starting kindergarten varies by state.
     Hicks' answer was pretty lame. "We have this thing in our country called the Constitution that gives states certain rights."
     Yes, the Rebel in me wanted to challenge that statement with a question about states being coerced into making sure every child learns the same curriculum (Common Core) and takes the same tests, but I didn't. As a guest, I minded my manners.
     A couple of other things that ruffled my feathers included the frequent use of the word "outcomes" and other words that do not get to the heart of what is involved in teaching children what they need to make it in this world.
     For example, here is how one of the papers I brought home with me describes the Department's focus of early learning:  Improve the health, social-emotional and cognitive outcomes for all children birth through 3rd grade, especially those with high-needs.
     The strategy for doing this listed three items:  access to high-quality early learning programs, effective early learning workforce and comprehensive early learning assessment systems.
     I don't want to hear about "cognitive outcomes." Tell me how children are going to learn to read and write. It's not going to happen by insisting teachers use the shiniest new reading program on the market. My friend, Stephen Krashen can tell you how to reword that goal so it makes sense and saves millions of dollars.
     Do not refer to educators as a "workforce." They are teachers who have completed accredited teaching programs and taken numerous tests to establish themselves as professionals.
     And please, please, please do not spend more precious time/money on tests for children in K-3rd grades. They need to grow, play and learn how to take turns at recess. Our children are spending too much time on their bottoms already.
     That's all for now. I had some very interesting discussions with other educators about the emphasis on competition vs. collaborative learning and the need to get books into the hands and homes of children whose parents do not speak English. I will save those topics for another day.    

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Teaching children about Dr. King's dream

     Martin Luther King Day was first observed in January 1986, when I was a freshman at the University of North Carolina. We hadn't spent much time studying him during my elementary, middle or high school years, and I guess that was because the wounds of the civil rights movement were still so fresh. It's much easier to teach children about injustice when we can allow the passage of time to distance us from taking any responsibility.
     The holiday was in its 26th year when I taught my first Martin Luther King Day lesson to a class of sixth graders where the children with white skin were the minority. Most of the students were from Spanish-speaking countries; regardless of skin tone, almost all were poor. By that time, I had been teaching at the school for a year and a half; I knew the children by their names, personalities and strengths/needs in the classroom. Our whiteness, blackness and native languages grew less significant with each passing day.
     It sounds like Dr. King's dream come true...only it wasn't.
     That school was nothing like the elementary school where my own son was in sixth grade. Most of the students at his school were white, almost all were proficient in English and only 10 percent needed help to pay for their lunch. It had a  fully-staffed special ed department. When the lead teacher of its autism department had to leave for a couple of months to care for a sick relative, another highly qualified teacher took her place. Part-time instructional assistants were added to the staff whenever a new child or two threw the teacher-to-student ratio out of sync. I know this because I worked there for two years. I decided to pursue a career in special education because I wanted to offer children the type of education I saw being provided to students with autism at that school.
      Then, I got a job teaching those brown-skinned, poor, Spanish-speaking children just six miles down the road and quickly began to love them just as much as my former students. The office where I had my job interview hadn't struck me as any different from other school offices. But months later, when school began, all I could see was differences. The building was so old that it reminded me of the middle school I attended in the late 70s/early 80s, one that had originally housed "Negro" children in the days of Jim Crow. 
     For some reason, there was less of almost everything at my new school. There had been enough room for me to have my own desk in a large classroom with windows and its own bathroom when I was an instructional assistant at my son's school. But I found myself squeezed into a trailer with the two teachers who had the most students on their caseloads - those teaching children who were still learning to speak English. There were at least seven other classes out in trailers, which meant a constant stream of students, paired up for safety, walked to and from the main building to use the bathroom. That winter, I spent almost as much time bundling up my first graders before taking them outside as I did actually teaching them. They were so little and wiggly, but eager to learn.
     One of the trailers had a squishy spot on the floor from soaking up too much water at some distant point in the past.
     Despite the inconveniences, I absolutely loved my job and this new feeling, shared by my coworkers, of making such a difference in the lives of children. We were giving those children something their parents wanted just as much as the parents at my old school:  a free, public education. Unlike the other parents, however, these moms and dads often had very limited skills in speaking, reading and writing English. Their limited skills had relegated them to being workers.
     Despite a nagging feeling that something very wrong was taking place before my eyes, I told myself for a long time that the little differences didn't really matter. The peeling paint and crowded trailers weren't physically hurting anyone, right?
    Now I know better. Every time we send a child to a school with older books and fewer teachers, we are teaching him he is less important than the white, English-speaking kids across town.
     Soon, I began to realize the differences went much deeper than I believed possible in our society today. For the first time, I experienced the full impact of Jim Crow, alive and well in the United States in the 21st century.
     To be continued...

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The hallway of shame

      If I were asked to name the one issue that most easily sums up the disconnect between parents and teachers, I would have to say, "Homework!" My personal philosophy on this topic caused all sorts of panic in a former coworker who feared I was allowing my special education students to get away with something every time I didn't assign them homework.
     It was painful, but I managed to hold my tongue most of the time.
     Children with educational labels for disabilities and those receiving support in learning English are unique, and we manage to remind them of this repeatedly during the course of a school day.
     Sometimes, they are removed from class and taught separately with the other talkative, impulsive and brown-skinned children. A more inclusive approach allows a speducator to come to them with support as they learn side-by-side their peers.
     Never is it more obvious just how different these children are than during testing time at the end of the year. All sorts of special conditions are needed to make sure boys, minority students and the children of immigrants fill in the correct bubble. A popular one around here is the "mark in test booklet" accommodation, which allows the teacher to bubble for them.
     The students who are left behind to take their tests in the classroom aren't a very diverse group. Like their classroom teacher, they tend to be white females who usually turn in their homework on time. What does that tell us about the traits we are most willing to label as disabilities?
     When it comes to homework, all those differences suddenly vanish as everyone is expected to do the same thing the same way all the time. There are little alterations, as indicated in students' IEPs, but not to the extent needed.
     Homework is meant to allow students to independently practice skills learned in class. Parental involvement should be minimal.
     It makes no sense to assign a child homework he cannot complete without help from an English-speaking adult who is familiar with the subject, but that is exactly what we are dishing out in schools five days a week.
     I have experienced the frustration of being a parent whose child was overwhelmed with assignments he lacked the skills to complete, and I have advocated as a speducator for others to consider the unique needs of my students. Very few people are willing to take the time to consider what it takes to finish homework in someone else's home with someone else's special needs. It's so much more comfortable to stay with what we know and keep walking the familiar path.
     Individual teachers are not consciously trying to hold back children; they are simply suffering from a limited ability to see things from another's point of view. This tendency is often attributed to people with autism in discussions about a "theory of the mind." I have met more educators than students with "theory of the mind" issues.
     When a teacher expects a child with an intellectual disability, no computer at home and a single parent working two jobs to complete the same homework as his affluent, highly intelligent classmate, she obviously has a difficult time seeing things from another perspective.
     A child who cannot complete homework independently will have limited academic success. We are sealing his fate in society every time we expect him to miraculously do at home the same tasks he needs help with at school.
     I have seen it happen as children who did not complete their homework were denied the opportunity to learn while their peers went over the answers in class. Instead, they sat out in the hallway on the floor, shamed for exhibiting the very traits that gave them labels in the first place.
     If a child was lucky, his special education/English-language teacher was able to come in early or stay late to help with assignments. But that also required him to catch an early ride to school or a late one home in the afternoon.
    It was too bad if mom or dad was working and could not fit an extra trip to school into their schedule. The child sat in the hallway feeling bad about himself while the "good" children went over their homework.
     Both children are learning something every time this happens. The "good" children learn whatever was being studied in class, and they learn that it sucks to be different or poor. The "bad" children learn about injustice while missing out on skills being reviewed in class. The gap is held firmly in place, and the labels remain.
     The "good" children will go to college, and the "bad" will go wherever they must to survive.